Chennai, Events, Management

Listen to the leader – Manickam Mahalingam

Half awake at 8:30AM today I was sitting in the ball room of Vivanta Taj Connemara hotel – waiting for the IACC Breakfast talk by Dr.M.Manickam (Chairman of Sakthi Auto components & other group companies) to begin, I was not sure on the connection with the US market & Dr.Manickam. How ignorant I was about Sakthi group & Indian companies silent march abroad!

Mr.Manickam is son of Industrialist and Philanthropist Dr.S.Mahalingam (who passed away recently). Mr.Manickam was introduced as a man wearing multiple hats with ease – led Sakthi group’s turnaround across industries (Auto, ABT, Sugar, Bottling), manages many colleges & an accomplished winner in Rowing competitions; I got impressed, by then I was wide awake and started to pay attention.


Manickam began his talk by their (Sakthi Auto components) foray to Detroit (the lost city of USA now).  Below are few points from rest of his talk (any paraphrasing/error should be attributed to my incomplete notes).

  • Two years back we started in America, we went to Detroit city (our customer General Motors invited us there). First thing we did was commission a survey to understand our future employees. We found only 28.9% children are growing up in household with both the parents around. A typical day for our worker (single parent) will be leaving the kid in a day care at 8AM, to pick them back by 3pm or pay $20/hour late fee. They were incurring $1000/month for day care expenses. They were doing long commutes, as a result by the time they are home, they don’t get to cook and pay the kids to eat (junk food) outside. We decided to start an in-house day care and extend take out food from our canteens in our factories. That generated lot of big positive energy, I was invited to meet the mayor, then the state governor. It all went surprisingly smooth
  • In Detroit city at a site five minutes drive from headquarters of GM, we bought a 70 acre facility. Costed us $10 Million, out of which we got a grant for $7 Million, so nett cost of $3 Million. Our entire experience including this grant and land buying all got done without meeting anyone (government officials) in their houses (unlike in India). In another facility we bought for similar price, we are getting $600-700K rent per annum
  • When we advertised for “Qualified” Assembly line supervisors, we hardly got response. The only one’s we got were 70 year old people with walking sticks; we took them and trained them, as age can’t be a recruitment deterrent in US as per law there. The reason for absence of supervisors in younger population was because US had stopped manufacturing 4 to 5 decades back. From 1960s first to Japan, Mexico, ASEAN and now China, they have off-shored their manufacturing; those skills were nearly extinct in US till 2010
  • US consulate in India extended us 30 Green cards for sending our staffs from India (and rest of the world) to USA. But we wanted to use it wisely. We wanted to send staff from India for shorter duration, so that we could rotate them
  • In China we got the whole facility, factory building including staff quarters for free from the city. The city constructed it and handed it over to us, the construction quality was world class. The city did that because we were generation employment for 350 people. In China we didn’t go alone, we have a local partner owning 50% who basically runs the operations for us and that’s working great for everyone
  • The first country we went outside India was Portuguese. Their engineers are the best I have seen anywhere in the world and they gave us lot of good technologies, which improved our quality worldwide. In Portuguese even though we own majority, we are only a shareholder. We don’t have any Indians working there, not even as a a Director or our representative. If we had done that, that representative would become a power centre. Also we don’t understand the local laws, we don’t want to do anything wrong and get prosecuted
  • The experience was not smooth/similar across Europe. When we got a factory in Germany we had lot of problems, surprisingly we found in our case, German engineers to be incompetent and we had to bring in the portuguese engineers who were able to double output with just two quarters. The German government was less open for foreign companies (like in our case non european) doing business there. For example in Europe (in general) there is benefits like the Government paying up to 80% of wages when you don’t have any orders. You can’t use the workforce time for job works, but on training, which we did take advantage of the benefit. Portuguese extended us the benefit but Germany & Sweden were reluctant to do as their interpretation of the law was conservative for outside European companies
  • An “experience” guided strategy for us is to avoid working with truck manufactures in India. When we went to Europe we ignored this and begun working with truck manufactures there. They didn’t have a concept of (Japanese) Kanban. Supply chain/Inventory was reviewed every quarter (!), which all sprung as surprise and hit us badly there
  • Based on my experience of doing business around the world (over 20 locations) I feel in India when somebody commits does anything wrong we don’t punish the guilty, but let them go free by punishing the system. Look at what’s happening with the new companies act in India (it’s not thought through well) or the numerous other regulations. In USA for example E & Y proudly claims that they are the Auditors for Coco-Cola for last 100 years, in India they can’t say that as there term can’t be more than 3 years

During Q & A, when I asked Dr.Manickam on how he prepared the top management & culture of his company before venturing abroad, he jokingly remarked that they first went to Orissa (Odisha) which prepared them well. In Orissa they had tried to change the local workers, but realized that didn’t work; they had to change, not them. The locals had  (valid) reasons why they work the way they do and that’s what will work there. Now Sakthi auto follows the same model from there to all other locations they operate – whether it is Portuguese or China or USA. It is always best to let the local’s run the show (plant).

Events, Management

Framework for Talent Management

SPIN Chennai had organized  a talk on “Leveraging a structured framework for organizational development and talent management” by Mr.Sankaran Venkataramani (Technical Director KPMG, Lead Appraiser for CMMI-DEV) today. It was a great talk, Mr.Sankaran’s vast experience in this area was imminent right from word GO!. He shared lot of examples and anecdotes that made the listening lively and memorable.

Talent Management by Sankaran Venkataramani (KPMG)

Talent Management by Sankaran Venkataramani (KPMG)

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Chennai, Events, Management

An evening with Dr. Ram Nidumolu

Today TiE Chennai had organised a talk by Dr.Ram Nidumolu, HBR Author and Leadership Thought Leader. The talk was titled “Being-Centered Leadership and Business Transformation: How Ancient Indian Wisdom Can Drive the Future of Business”, certainly a mouthful. What caught my attention while I registered for it was the words “Ancient Indian Wisdom”, got me curious!

Dr.Ram didn’t keep us guessing, at the first slide itself he revealed that the Ancient Indian Wisdom he is going to talk comes from Indian Upanishads (collection of Sanskrit texts containing revealed Vedic truths).  I like speakers who start with a story. Dr.Ram started with one from Chāndogya upanishad of Indra (King of Devas)  and Virochana (Asura) going to Prajapati (lord of creatures) to learn about the true self. Both Indra and Virochana served Prajapati for 32 years, at the end Prajapati told them to see themselves naked in front of mirror, then to get dressed with exquisite dresses and ornaments, then see themselves again. Prajapati told them that what they saw now is true self, which Virochana misunderstood as truth. Indra approached again, served another 32 years, then another 32 years, after that another 5 years  (total 101 years of tapas) before Prajapati revealed the secret, what is not destroyed/destroyable is true self – the atma.

Dr.Ram Nidumolu

Dr.Ram Nidumolu

Below are few points that I noted down and paraphrased from his talk.

Where business should be in 21st century?. The world of Business has changed significantly from the time of upanishad 2500 years. Today Inequality is increasing, refer the fine book “Capital” by Thomas Piketty. We need to relook at the way business is done, we need to look into the true-self (inner atma talked by Prajapati). 

If you wish to put a value to see why business as usual doesn’t work. Look to this figure. The “Natural” capital (aka Natural resources) destroyed every year globally is $7.3 trillion, which is 13% of world economic output. It becomes that the era we are entering now is sustainable enterprise. We need to think on fifty year cycles of great trends. In that we need to see a business model that will sustain for not even hundreds of years, at least something that will sustain till say 2050. Sustainable business makes business sense also. Even that it’s not happening why?.

Many companies claim to take sustainable efforts, but in reality they mean CSR activities, even the great CSR activities are not fully sustainable. They are stuck in what I call stage 1 or 2 of sustainable enterprise. They are not able to mature to stage 3,4 or 5. How can you make “sustainable”, an integral part to your business. Be your (business) true self. You need to collaborate with other businesses, this is not a solo journey. 

There is a new term coming around for this called “Natural capital management“. It tries to see this from the perspective, if we put an economic value to nature that will it change the behaviour of businesses. Even this, can it get senior management personal commitment, can it succeed in a conscious capitalism.  But there are no real methods associated/replicable to all these terms. This is where I feel Upanishads can help.

The word Entrepreneur may even have its roots from the Indian word Anthar Prana, inside life-force. An Entrepreneur/Business needs the following to succeed in this journey:

  1. Business models
  2. Business processes
  3. Change in leaders mindset (inner inspiration)

it’s a combination of western management/repeatable practises and Indian wisdom, you need all the above three in your journey running a business. You (business) needs to change your sense of Inner self. Don’t over plan for future, Enjoy the path, the process, the present as told in Yoga/Meditation. This is what I explore in my book “Two Birds in a Tree: Timeless Indian Wisdom for Business Leaders“, where I talk about how two birds sitting in the same tree behave differently. 

I have studied several businesses/leaders who followed this “Being-Centered” where Being is as in Human-Being (not a thing, not an object).  One example is Paul Polman (CEO) of Unilever and another will be Dr. G. Venkataswamy (Dr.V) of Aravind Eye Hospital.

Dr.V. followed 3 principles in Aravind Eye Hospital:

  1. Never turn any one (better he can pay or not) 
  2. Never compromise on quality (just because someone is being treated free doesn’t mean you can deliver substandard) 
  3. Be completely self reliant (don’t borrow) 

Dr.V. keeps saying to think of every patient who comes in, as your aunt or grand mother in your village.

Overall a different management talk that I got to hear in recent years, thanks for that to Dr.Ram. I have purchased his book (Two Birds in a Tree) from Amazon Kindle store for Rs.100, I will write about it once I have read it.


(left bottom) your's truly listening attentively

(left bottom) your’s truly listening attentively

Chennai, Events, Management

Listen to the leader – Vijay Amritraj

Vijay Amritraj“, the name itself is an inspiration for every Indian who grow up in 1970s and 1980s. Long before Sunil Gavaskar , Kapil Dev or P T Usha put India in International sports map, it was Vijay who turned world attention to India for right reasons. I think it was 1987, when I got galvanized by Vijay’s world cup victory that I joined Tennis coaching in T.Nagar Ladies(!) club behind Holy Angels’ school in Pondy Bazaar. It was the popular Tennis coaching centre then, and this <1 year of Tennis coaching was the only sporting activity that I ever put in effort learning. My dear readers, if you are wondering how good I was with my Tennis back in 1987, I will just say this. My tennis coach, when he saw me running around the field during warm-ups, used to call me as Carl Lewis (an Olympic Gold runner) and not by any Tennis player name. The rigorous regiment that Tennis (or any sport) demanded was enough for me to give up after sometime.

Last week as I read the invite from Indo American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) to listen to Vijay Amritraj as part of their “Listen to the leader” series, I know this is where I will be today morning. The man at 61 years was looking twenty years younger and his energy was infectious.


Below are few points that I noted down and paraphrased from his life journey he shared with us today.

  • Chennai is my hometown, this is where I was born and I make sure I come here every month to spend one weekend with my mother who lives here. My parents were my role models, and my my mother my biggest motivation. I was a sick kid, and I spent many days in a month in Railway hospital beds for I.V. injections, it was then the Doctor there advised I take up any outdoor sports and that’s how I started Tennis
  • My early Tennis days were challenging, when we (Anand Amritraj and myself) left Bombay to travel abroad we had 5 Pounds in our pocket. Anand was brilliant in Chess, we used to bet 10 pounds for a match of chess between Anand and other room mates in the dormitories, with 10 pounds being a money we never had with us 
  • When I first landed in USA in 1970s we stayed with a lovely couple in Columbus Ohio, who had a placard with our names, even though we were the only India boys walking out and holding 20 Tennis rackets under our arms. They for some reason assumed we (Ashok & myself) didn’t speak a word of English and we are vegeterians. They were wrong on both accounts. The friendship that started that day with them has continued ever since
  • Later Tennis days were not easy too. I had my fare share of events outside my performance affecting too. But looking back that’s what I feel added the spice to life and made me wiser and who I am today. For instance in 1974 we  (Anand Amritraj and myself) we were the favourites to win Davos World Cup, having reached to finals against South Africa. Unfortunately India at that time didn’t have sporting contacts with South Africa due to prevailing Apartheid there, and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had to order India to forfeit the match. Similar political pressure came back to haunt us in 1987 when we reached to play Israel against a match, Indian political establishment stopped it, quoting India’s lack of diplomatic ties with Israel. Luckily I could meet then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and convince him to agree to invite Israel to play the match in New Delhi, which we did and won it for India. After the match Israel team captain said to me, “Vijay we don’t know whether we will ever visit India again, can you arrange us to see Taj Mahal and return safely”. Government of India was gracious to do that and it was more than a decade later that India established diplomatic contacts with Israel. Looking back I am glad it all started with a Tennis match in 1987, that’s the power of sports
  • For me for boycott can never be an answer. There is no point in saying my best won’t meet your best. And Sports can be best way to contact/communicate
  • There were two instances among others in my life in the Tennis court when I was sick enough to return in a stretcher that I perceived and won the day’s match. For me, it’s about character, what you can and cannot do
  • Once Spanish Tennis captain asked me “Vijay, why there are not more of Tennis players from India”, I answered its for the same reason that Spain doesn’t have more of Software Engineers
  • We (India) should take part in everything (sports) we get a chance to. In India when it comes to sports we take the literal meaning of the (informal) olympic motto “The most important thing is not to win but to take part!
  • We can do lot more with sports for trade, networking, nations, etc. See the example, when David Cameron and Barack Obama meet first they spoke of Basketball.
  • I feel every child, where ever they live should play every day from 4PM to 6PM, they need the physical activity and outdoor exposure. Education and Sports should go hand in hand
  • In USA (where I live now) kids play sports to ensure they get into best of universities which otherwise is out of reach for them. For example, my son (Prakash Amritraj) who had tough time in academics, got offers from over 50 universities to join after he (finally) in a Tennis tournament . He was the first ethnic to do so
  • In India especially Tamil Nadu, we are conservative. But sports is a risky business, how much ever effort and time you have put into it, there is no guarantee you will win
  • In my early days in Los Angeles, most of the film industry people played Tennis, as a result Tennis court (nowadays business is done over Golf courses) became a place for me to socialize, build relationships and get into movie business
  • When I was serving in United Nations goodwill ambassador I traveled to many disaster affected places, but where ever I went I took with me sports equipments that I can give it to the kids there to play. I feel there can be nothing more powerful to rebuild their lives than sports and the benefits it brings in you
  • For me, there are five important Ds. They are  Desire, Discipline, Dedication, Determination, Divine (blessings)
  • Finally, when asked in a recent interview I said my biggest achievement is that my kids call me twice a day. In life we keeping chasing our tails all the time and miss out on important things

Mr.Vijay Amritraj was easy going and humble, after the event he took time to walk to each one of us and shook our hands. Those of us who requested for a photograph (this is the new autograph) with him, he posed patiently. The first time after I had posed with him for a picture, I had few anxious moments as the gentleman who handled my phone had taken a ghostly picture. By the time I deducted this, Vijay had walked out of the hall, but he was nice to agree for a retake (being an actor himself). He posed once more with his same unchanging smile!.

with Indian Tennis legend Vijay Amritraj

with Indian Tennis legend Vijay Amritraj

I am feeling ecstatic as I look myself with Vijay in the picture above. Thanks Vijay, appreciate it.

Events, India, Tamil

Dravidian proof of the Indus script

First a disclaimer, I know nothing about epigraphy and I can write in one post card what I know about language (Old Tamil) and history including Indus Valley. I attended the talk today out of curiosity and to listen in person to Mr.Iravatham Mahadevan. I took limited notes of the talk, so I may have misunderstood some, so please refer to the actual paper for correct following.

Padma Shri award winning Indian epigraphist Mr.Iravatham Mahadevan (IM) delivered today evening in Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL), what the scholars hosting the talk proudly claimed as a historic talk. This was the first public presentation by Mr.Mahadevan titled “Dravidian Proof of the Indus Script via The Rig Veda: A Case Study”. The man at 84 years was frail, his voice feeble but his energy on the subject, his urge to unravel the mysteries of Indus Valley Script was super clear and infectious. The small hall at RMRL was filled with nearly hundred experts (excluding myself) and there was pin drop silence (a rarity in India) to listen carefully to Mr.Mahadevan.

Mr.Iravatham Mahadevan presenting - 14 Nov 2014

Mr.Iravatham Mahadevan presenting – 14 Nov 2014

The presentation began by listing 4 signs (or symbols) named for convenience as ABCD, reading right to left. The four ideograms are the following:

A – looks like a “Back of wolf”, a four legged animal with no face meaning the real identification of the animal not important, its more of an object/asset

B – looks like a Hook, receive

C – looks like crossroads, village

D – looks like a Jar, a most frequent occurrence in Indus script, almost 10%. Frequently appears in the end

From this, Mr.Mahadevan arrives using various techniques to deduce Old Tamil (Dravidian) root words with the nearest literal meanings and use a technique called “rebus” which uses images to indicate the (pronunciation of) a letter (for example he said letter I in English can be shown with an image of Eye).

In the first process, he deduces the Old Tamil root words for these 4 signs. By this,

A – is மாறு as in மகாகவி பாரதியார் பாடல் வரிகள்:

கங்கை நதிப்புறத்துக் கோதுமைப் பண்டம்
காவிரி வெற்றிலைக்கு மாறுகொள்ளுவோம்

where மாறு indicates “Barter”, extending to “Merchant”

B – is கொள் as in மாறுகொள்

C – is Village, (Proper Noun) a Resident of a village, பாடி as in ஆயர்பாடி/காட்பாடி. Another meaning is வாழ் as in வாழ்கிறான், வாழ் in old Tamil is to differentiate between living and to live prosperous

D – is like ‘அன்’ as in மஹாதேவன் to indicate masculine gender

Reading all  the 4 signs together we can arrive at மாறு கொள் பாடி அன், from this he arrives at proper forms to “One who receives barter and lives in the city”. In other words, “Merchant of the city

In the second process, he deduces the 4 signs to be the root words of names of later day Pandian Kings, who were probably descendant of Indus Valley who retained the names without knowing the meaning.

A – மாறு, மாறன் – meaning Barterer – now a Pandia King

B – செழி, செழியன் – meaning he of lightning – now a Pandia King

C – பாடி, பாண்டி, பாண்டியன் – meaning the prosperous – now a Pandia King

C – வாழி, வழுதி  – meaning he of the city – now a Pandia King

In the third process, he deduces the 4 signs to arrive at Rig Veda days Sanskrit names including the god name “Pusan”. I didn’t follow the Sanskrit names properly so couldn’t take notes on that. He mentioned instances of how some of the names (words) in Rig Veda could have been wrongly understood (myths created), and understanding their root words from Indus Script can explain the intended meaning of those words.

I remember in one place he using the word “அம்பல்” to indicate “அம்பலம்” which means Assembly as in அம்பலப்படுத்துதல்  (bring it out in open village assembly).

By the above 3 process, Mr.Mahadevan concludes the following 3 points:

  1. The Language of Indus civilization was an early form of Dravidian
  2. Due to migration of a section of the Indus population southwards, they formed some settlements in South India
  3. (Rig) Vedic age succeeded the Indus civilization. The Rig Veda is a product of cross composite